Friday, June 02, 2006

it's all in a name...the legend of Nachiketa!!

lately the vacations and the flu combined together have given me ample time & as a result i have picked up on reading 'the namesake' by Jhumpa Lahri (i.e. when i'm not messing around with my blog template and yelling at the cat and bellowing out orders to my hapless sister). so here's an interesting extract from the book that sets the mood for the rest of the post:

"Names can wait. in India parents take their time. it wasn't unusual for years to pass before the right name, the best possible name, was determined. besides there are always pet names to tide one over. in Bengali the word for pet name in daknam, meaning literally the name by which one is called by family, friends and other intimates at home and in other private, unguarded moments. pet names are persistent remnant of childhood, a reminder that life is not always so serious, so formal, so complicated. they are a reminder, too, that one is not all things to all people. every pet name is paired with a good name, a bhalonam, for identification in the outer world. good names tend to represent dignified and enlightened qualities. pet names have no such aspirations."

while dwelling on the subject of names, it does become imperative that i remind all my readers that the above extract couldn't be any closer to the truth. for us Bengalis, names are a very important part of life. well not just because they determine our identity to the world (which is so very obvious. and yes, none of us would ever want the name Gaylord Focker). names are in a sense a link to our culture and family. it's a tradition for the eldest in the family to name the new born. it's supposed to be a life long blessing to the child and is a right that is never challenged. i too was named by my grandfather.

it is often that i wonder what was going through the mind of my grandfather while he decided on a name for me. that's something that i shall never know. but one thing is for sure. i love my name. Nachiketa.

the name Nachiketa itself is borrowed from the Katha part of the original ten Upanishads. composed approximately between B.C. 800 and 400 the Upanishads are in essence the basis of the Vedanta philosophy & it's only appropriate that my name traces its origin to the most ancient of the texts of Hindu theology. the original authors of the Upanishads are not known but it is believed that they belong to the Shruti literature and are the utterances of sages who spoke from the fullness of their illumed experiences and who dispense knowledge as a means of spiritual enlightment.

so here's the story behind my name.


Nachiketa is the name of a sage in the Katha Upanishad, a part of the Yajur Veda. the Katha Upanishad is the most philosophical of all the Upanishads that forms the basis of discussion on the connection between the individual soul (the atman) and God. the the one thing that distinguishes Nachiketa from all other sages and rishis is that he was only a lad when he attained his knowledge from his teacher, Yama (the God of Death) himself.

the story states that Nachiketa's father, Aruni by name, while conducting the Vishvajit Yagya (a sacrificial ceremony) was giving away his possessions as alms to the brahmins when the young Nachiketa asked him, "Father, to whom will you give me?" enraged by such questions Aruni turned to Nachiketa and said, "I give you to Yama (the God of Death)." Aruni immediately realized his error and was aghast at having done so. but the since the offering was made over the sacred sacrificial fire there was no way of turning back, Nachiketa insisted; and as he left his home and walked towards the abode of Yama in keeping with his father's words he couldn't help wondering about the fragility and impermanence of God's greatest gift, life.

it is not clearly mentioned as to how Nachiketa reached the abode of Yama, Yamalya. but what is mentioned is that when he reached Yamalya, Yama was not at his residence and hence he had to wait outside. Nachiketa waited outside for 3 days without food or water. when Yama finally returned he was both, surprised and shocked, on seeing the still 'alive' young boy at his doorstep. as a token of repentance for his lapse in hospitality that had made the boy wait for 3 days without food or water at his doorstep, Yama granted Nachiketa three boons (wishes).

for his first wish Nachiketa asked for the reunification with his family back on earth and liberation of his ancestors and descendants. his second wish was to be given the knowledge behind the meaning of the sacred sacrificial fire and its significance. pleased by the boy's quest for knowledge Yama granted the two boons immediately and also blessed him saying that from that day onwards the sacrificial fire would be known as the 'Nachiketa fire'.

it was the third wish that took Yama by surprise and the subsequent dialogue between them forms the basis of the philosophical discourse in the Katha Upanishad. for his third wish Nachiketa asks Yama,
"When a man dies there is some doubt: some say 'he exists' and others say "he does not" this I would like to know the truth. and since you are the perfect one/person to ask, the answer to this question this is the final boon I would like from you."
when faced with such a question Yama initially tried to divert Nachiketa by offering him all sorts of worldly possessions and even heaven itself. but Nachiketa was adamant on his quest for knowledge about death and immortality and finally Yama had to concede the knowledge of 'afterlife' to the young boy.


so my name traces its roots to the story of a young lad and his quest for knowledge which culminates into a spiritual and philosophical debate that forms the basis of Hinduism.

sometimes one has to wonder as to why we Indians associate one's name to one's future. cause how otherwise was my grandfather to know that his infant grandson would indeed be someone with a taste for the spiritual and philosophical later on in life. maybe it's in my blood. maybe it's my 'karma'.

i am not 'too' spiritualistic or philosophical. not to the extent that i sit and ponder about the meaning of life and death. but i do like to believe that there is definitely more than that just meets the eye. Buddha once said that true awakening can only come from self contemplation and that everything was linked to each other.
"you exist because the leaf exists and the leaf exists because you exist."
i like that. :)


Gordon van den Heever said...


Aren't you bored already? It really sems that way!

But yeah, have to give your life over to Rock & Roll, alcohol, sex and drugs, otherwise you are going to bore yourself to death.

Which ever way you prefer, but make sure you will go out on the best way.


Beks said...

That's nice but didn't Nachiketa think about sharing the truth about the afterlife with all of us?

Nachi said...

well yeah, what else does the Vedanta teach us?? the philosophy of Vedanta is the outcome of dear ol' namesake and all the troubles he went through.

Susanne said...

That's very interesting, Nachiketa, and I like the story behind your name.

To my mind any taste for spiritual and philosophical things really always is connected with all simple and of course all complicated things too in our daily routine.
It's nothing "special" - and not separated of all these things we do all day.

So go dancing Rock&Roll and be spiritual in the same moment! :-)